Sotheby's employees hold Jackson Pollock's "Number… (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty…)
Over the course of 10 days in November, art reached a milestone — if that's the right word for it — when more than $1 billion was handed over at the fall auctions in New York in exchange for Modern and contemporary paintings and sculptures. The big story was that art made since 1945 accounted for the lion's share of that, with contemporary art dwarfing Monet, Picasso, Matisse and friends at more than $867 million in sales. Words like "spectacular" and "stunning" peppered the news accounts.
Art has always gone where the money is. (There's a reason that the lavish and lauded 15th century manuscript the "Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry" was très riche.) But prices say next to nothing about the actual art that changed hands, especially given the degree to which the auction market is easily manipulated. The billion dollars merely italicized an overriding theme driving the presidential elections taking place at the same moment: Obscene private wealth and gross income inequality are global phenomena; the economic system is rigged and surplus cash must go somewhere.
As it was for high net-worth individuals in the 18th century, contemporary art is again an alternate investment, gilded with a cultural veneer. One auction analyst noted that price distributions showed a 64% rise, year over year, in average big-ticket contemporary art prices — which is considerably better than a plutocrat will get from a mega-monster bank's Christmas Club account. With older art-product depleted, a steady supply of newer art-product fills the void.
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The November sales were at once comic and nauseating. They were breathlessly charted in segments of the press, like robber baron Henry Huntington transporting Gainsborough's "Blue Boy" cross-country to Union Station by private railroad car in 1922, the better to gin up publicity for what was then the world's most expensive painting — and buff Huntington's wanna-be self-image as an oxymoronic American aristocrat. Even when the buyers are anonymous, the New York auctions are where art consumption gets conspicuous.
Weeks later, fears of a bubble are already afoot. Barron's has suggested that what the big discrepancy between auction results for tried-and-true Modern masters and more speculative contemporary artists really showed is a sharp, downward market correction for Modern — with contemporary coming next. Whatever. For art, the issue is less the big money, per se, than what it does: Suck all the oxygen out of the room, blast the speakers to drown out conversation and warp the view.
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Stamping one's foot to decry the existence of a market mostly lessens energy for getting to the voting booth. Plenty of terrific new art is nowhere near an investment-class vehicle, and lots of it can be seen where it long has been — not just in makeshift or community-run independent spaces but in, yes, commercial galleries too.
Increasingly it is also in art museums, which not so long ago was not the case. Now any city of a certain size (and self-regard) wants a museum specializing in recent art, while places like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art ambitiously insert new art into an encyclopedic context. It's there, in nonprofit museums, where the money issue is vexing.
When the Museum of Contemporary Art became the first major American museum to name a business-minded gallery owner as director, that was the fulsome art market intruding. In-house curatorial staff was whittled. As recently as last spring MOCA had a show — not its first — by a guest curator with a vested interest in it.
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Outsourcing curators' jobs carries risks. Blame for much of today's dysfunction in Congress has been traced to the 1995 decision to outsource policy expertise to private interests — also known as lobbyists and ideological think tanks — with whom reduced and overwhelmed congressional staff cannot compete.
What's worrisome isn't rich speculators' art investments. Who cares about that? What's worrisome is that a generation's worth of privatizing public life still threatens the public sphere — including art museums. In these economically straitened times, the power of the for-profits and the desperation of the nonprofits manifests an imbalance greater than it has ever been.